From the early days of his first training camp with the Rutgers football team this past August, head coach Chris Ash has preached the importance that dominating at the line of scrimmage has on the outcome of a football game. Win the battle in the trenches and the Scarlet Knights would be well on their way to leaving the field with a victory on any given Saturday.
Two-thirds through his first season on the Banks, Ash’s philosophy has proven correct for the most part, though it has worked against his team. The Knights (2-6, 0-5) have yet to win a Big Ten game in five attempts, having lost the sack battle in every contest.
Rutgers ranks dead-last in the conference in sacks against, having allowed its quarterback to be taken down in the pocket 17 times in five conference matchups, while ranking penultimate in sacks with just five in as many games.
But amid the chaos and struggles of an offensive line suffering from injury — starting right tackle J.J. Denman has been banged up, and his status for this Saturday’s game against Indiana is a game time decision — and continuously learning and adapting to a change in offensive style has been the steady presence of Tariq Cole.
The sophomore has appeared and started in seven of Rutgers’ eight games at left tackle this season, excelling in his first year as a starter.
In an article published by Pro Football Focus ranking the most underrated players in each conference within college football, Cole was ranked atop the list for the Big Ten.
“Somebody sent that to me the other day and it’s a good honor for Tariq as a young guy,” said offensive line coach A.J. Blazek. “We had a good talk about it. Put that feather in your hat but you go back to work.”
The article used the advanced metrics at the site’s disposal to show how dominant Cole has been this season. According to the article, aside from a rough outing against Iowa and Anthony Nelson — who ranked two spots below Cole on the list at three — the Long Beach, New York, native has allowed just one quarterback pressure in six games.
He was given an overall grade of 82.6 by the website, the top ranking in the conference and 11th best nationally at his position, while also owning both the best pass and run-blocking grades in the Big Ten.
“He’s just consistently been working. Anything that coach Blazek’s been trying to ingrain in him,” said junior left guard Dorian Miller. “It was just cool for me, playing next to him. I’ve just been fortunate to play next to a couple of guys who’ve been regarded to be pretty good. (Former Rutgers offensive tackle Keith) Lumpkin was big, athletic, physically-freaky guy and Tariq is kind of the same and he’s definitely been improving every week and honing in on the little stuff. Because physically, it’s there, improving with his technique and perfecting his craft.”
In addition to improving his technique, Cole also took advantage of the offseason conditioning demands of strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker’s program over the winter, shedding 40 pounds to drop to a more mobile 313 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame.
The mobility adds to the athleticism Miller described seeing in his teammate, a skillset that lets him get away with some things that others would be getting chewed out by the coaching staff for during film sessions.
“There’s certain things athletically that he can do that other guys can’t,” Miller said of Cole. “He’s definitely a physical freak in some ways. ... I remember when he came in, he was swole, his face was real swole ... and when you look at the pictures from the past and compare them to how he looks now, he definitely made a full transformation.”
But for as far as he’s come, the road ahead for Cole resembles the long, winded one of the program he plays for. As the Knights approach the final four game stretch of the season, Cole will be expected to do what got him to this point — put his head down and grind.
“If you ask me, we’re Rutgers, I enjoy being underrated,” Blazek said. “All that does is put a big target on you. He’s got a lot of work to do, he knows that, but he shows the upside to be a really good player.”